Oakland Raiders Facing Defensive Uncertainty Heading into 2009

Ramone BrownSenior Writer IJuly 6, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 2:  Michael Huff #24 and Sam Williams #54 of the Oakland Raiders look on from the bench area during the game against the the Atlanta Falcons on November 2, 2008 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California. The Falcons defeated the Raiders 24-0. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

At first thought, I could confidently predict what the Raiders' defensive starting lineup will look like.

But then again, after a second look considering rumors and speculation, it is not so clear.

All kinds of things can mix up the starting lineup, anything from the Draft to injuries to trades, or even a former backup stepping it up to crack that starting lineup.

To make matters worse, Al Davis and the Raiders tend to be secretive and shrouded in mystery, leaking very little to the media. Raider PR reps were even seen actively keeping defenders like Greg Ellis away from reporters during OTAs.

The only things I would even say I'm certain of defensively this year are the following:

Thomas Howard will start weakside.

Tommy Kelly will start at DT.

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Chris Johnson and Nnamdi Asomugha will start at corner.

Here's a look at all the uncertainty among the Raiders' defense.


Competing for the two spots are the likes of Michael Mitchell, Michael Huff, Tyvon Branch, Hiram Eugene, Keith Davis, and a few others less likely to make the roster.

Branch, like Mitchell, is a speedy DB capable of playing both safety positions and was formerly penciled in as the Raiders' starter at strong safety.

Now multiple reports are claiming Branch is a shoo-in to start at FS.

Mitchell is a fan favorite and may eventually start at SS, but he may face competition from Davis—a veteran safety who was a key contributor to his former team on special teams and got a chance to start last year due to injury.

Eugene likely won't sit back and let someone like Branch take his starting job, so there may be a good deal of competition at free.

Huff has been labeled a bust by many, and his time with the Raiders may be coming to an end. There's even been speculation of a position change to corner much like the Raiders' Asomugha, who was also labeled as a bust by many at FS until he moved to corner.

On the other hand, many are predicting a breakout year for Huff, and he may very well be the starter at free.

Opinions on Huff are mixed.

Many onlookers reported he often looked confused reading plays and was always a step slow in coverage. On the other hand, Asomugha, the best corner in the game, says he is looking great.

Nnamdi is also one of the few predicting a breakout year for Huff.

Who starts and plays where?

Your guess is as good as mine.


At first glance, the linebackers seem pretty set. Thomas Howard playing weak-side, Kirk Morrison playing?

Most would assume Morrison would be playing the middle, but others have been assuming otherwise, and there are quite a few reasons why.

Many argue MLB is not his natural position, and he is better suited to play outside. Ricky Brown, former starter at SAM, has been working at MLB. Morrison played SAM his rookie year, racking up over 100 tackles, and many believe a position swap may be imminent.

A possible stud MLB has just been picked up named Frantz Joseph.

But the confusion doesn't end there. Assuming Kirk does continue to play the middle, there are still quite a few people fighting for that strong spot: Jon Alston, Ricky Brown, Sam Williams, Slade Norris, and a few others.

Alston has received rave reviews, especially regarding his speed and coverage. Though he may be best suited for passing situations, he became the starter last year after Brown went down with an injury.

Brown, the initial starter last year, has been working in the middle with the second team defense during OTAs.

Norris, a "tweener" OLB/DE, has seen reps in OTAs at SOLB with the second team, though his speed and size make him better suited to play the weak side.

Williams is extremely gifted physically with size, speed, and athleticism but hasn't lived up to expectations.

Many question his will and mind.

Is there any truth to the rumors of Morrison moving back outside?

Is Joseph the real deal?

If the answer to those questions is no, who will start strong-side?

Defensive End

Currently, the Raiders are stacked with talent at this position with the likes of Greg Ellis, Derrick Burgess, Trevor Scott, Jay Richardson, Matt Shaughnessy, Stryker Sulak, and a few others.

There's a good deal of competition not only to start, but to just make the roster. Currently, though unconfirmed, there are even rumors of the team shopping Burgess.

Burgess and Ellis are both decorated veterans of pass rush and may even end up starting opposite each other.

Richardson started most of last season. Currently he is the most proven against the run, but has yet to develop his pass-rushing skills. Though not very flashy or a fan favorite, he is a likely candidate to start.

Scott just finished a breakout rookie year, leading all rookies in sacks. This offseason he has added 15 pounds of muscle to become more effective against the run.

Shaughnessy is a big defensive end built much like Richardson with better pass rush credentials, though it may not transfer over to the NFL.

Who will start, and who will even make the team?

How much longer will Burgess be a Raider?

Nose Tackle

This is the most neglected position on the Raiders' defense, and Terdell Sands is the only true nose tackle the Raiders have. Gerard Warren started most of the season and was semi-effective.

To make matters worse, Sands has yet to live up to expectations and is currently on the trade block. 

Even though it looks pretty bleak for this position, there is still hope.

We have an experienced defensive coordinator who claims to be addressing the problem through depth and scheme. This would suggest he plans to hide this weakness through increased pressure—sounds like more blitzing to me.

Also, there are still possibilities we add a nose tackle via trade or FA. Hollis Thomas is still a free agent and can fill the void left if Sands is traded.

Here's a look at my projected defensive starting lineup for the Raiders.

Free Safety = Tyvon Branch

Strong Safety = Michael Mitchell

Corner = Nnamdi Asomugha

Corner = Chris Johnson 

Weakside Linebacker = Thomas Howard

Middle Linebacker = Frantz Joseph, Ricky Brown

Strongside Linebacker = Kirk Morrison

Left Defensive End = Greg Ellis

Right Defensive End = Jay Richardson

Defensive Tackle = Tommy Kelly

Nose Tackle = Gerard Warren, Terdell Sands (Hollis Thomas, I wish)